How to Read Harper’s Magazine May 2018 with the Retractable Tongue of a Snake

a prose poem for John Robert Colombo

Read the way the snake moves, how it smells with its tongue, how it eats mice

Glance, graze, ignore, skip, survey, wander in and out, get lost, zero in
pan out, connect, weigh, sift, compare, criticize, praise, remember, forget
drift, shelve, rip, burn, plunge, dream, ferret, funnel, embrace, abandon, bite, swallow…

Harper's May 2018 Issue
Harper’s May 2018 Issue

Don’t want to read about Mike Pence’s Persecution Complex

The man is boring

And why do so many of the rich and powerful believe themselves to be persecuted?

Don’t want to read Rick Moody

Don’t know why

Or Buddhism and the Chinese economy

Not in the mood

Not even mood-right for Rebecca Solnit, who’s a very good essayist


I become different animals when I read


Like a bee in pursuit of a small bloom

I alight on Harper’s Index for possible pollination

“Rank of Disneyland among the happiest places on earth, according to Disneyland: 1

Percentage of Disneyland employees who worry about being evicted from their homes: 56”

There are books sleeping in these two lines

Love the ironic incongruity of how those who live in “utopia” don’t always recognize it as such


Coiled Black Snake, Circa 1939-1942 Artist Bill Traylor (1854-1949)
Coiled Black Snake, Circa 1939-1942
Artist Bill Traylor (1854-1949)

Susan Sontag is everywhere in this issue

I land on a photograph by Peter Hujar

She’s reclining on her bed, hands folded behind her head

Young, trim, androgynous

The article on Hujar’s photography is by Stephen Koch, whom I remember as the author of The Breaking Point

a study of the rift between Hemingway and Dos Passos in Spain


I move to a short story by Sontag herself entitled “An Ordinary Man”

about a man who wanted to be extraordinary but was fated to be

alone, unhappy and unloved


And there she is again in the memoir “Nothing But” by Geoff Dyer

whom I remember as the author of a book on D.H. Lawrence

and the editor of John Berger’s essays

Dyer opens his piece with the memory of Sontag as a teenager visiting Thomas Mann in Los Angeles

how she reported on the visit differently at different times

how memory is more shifting than secure


I morph into a bloodhound

sniffing a scent

On page 69 is “A Destruction Story,” a poem by Juliana Spahr with an introduction by Ben Lerner

The poem builds on the 1963 Oscar Brown Jr. song, sung by Al Wilson in 1968, borrowed from an Aesop fable

Inserted in the poem is Bill Traylor’s “Black Coiled Snake,” a painting I saw at the Metropolitan years ago

or was it at the AGO – ah, memory

“This poem tells the story of a song (a song about a snake…),” a Lord of Life according to DHL

Snake: subject of a psalm by Margaret Atwood – “O long word, cold-blooded and perfect”


I’m hooked, befuddled, on “queer street” as fighters say when

they’ve been tagged hard

Mystery, strangeness, the bliss of not-knowing, of lostness, don’t know if I’m in a poem, a story, or a song


The story is, the poem is, the song is a woman feeds a snake on the road milk and honey

brings him to her bosom and he bites her

which gives Donald J. Trump license to say in the 2016 campaign you can’t trust immigrants

you need to put up a wall

Here poet Spahr goes magical and luminous in her detail

How “the Indian eagle owl nor the Bengal tiger has love for the barbed wire and concrete of the India-Bangladesh barrier. The Israeli West Bank apartheid wall is not loved by the Palestine viper nor would it be by the Israeli painted frog.”

What happens to jaguars, bighorn sheep, and Sonoran pronghorns on the Trump border?

Can snakes still make it across?

They’ll find a way – untameable, resistant to control, non-negotiable, wholly Other


The poem leaves me stunned, staggered, dazed, enthralled, spellbound

Like a sloth, I move slowly across its high-wire, not wanting it to end, now or ever


I seek recovery

the way Leonard Cohen did after “The Future” when he was sung out

I’m overwhelmed, exhausted, blown apart

He stopped singing and played the piano quietly

I need to stop reading and re-reading the snake story-poem and change my inner music


I turn to Souvankham Thammavongsa, a Canadian, a Torontonian

and her short story “Slingshot”

I know her as a poet of quiet pages that have more silence than speech, more empty space than inked space


In the story, an old woman gets it on with a young guy, for a time

There’s a moment for that to happen, and then you move on and other things happen


Enter, ingest, ration, savour, meander, delay, store, return, retrieve, leap, dance

absorb, caress, inhale, wrestle, imagine, dream, re-imagine, remake, reanimate

add, subtract, multiply, build, dismantle, re-build…


I’m still gripped by the poem “A Destruction Story” and these lines

“All is snake./Art too is snake…”

You need to bite, and be bitten, when you read

Shed old skins and grow